Published: June 20, 2016

Bringing Neanderthals to Life: Sculptures of Elisabeth Daynès

Kate Golembiewski, PR and Science Communications Manager, Public Relations


Two sculptures, created by French paleoartist Elisabeth Daynès, give a breathtakingly lifelike look at human relatives—Homo ergaster and Homo neanderthalensis.

There’s a lot to see in The Field Museum’s Evolving Planet exhibition—a rock bearing traces of life from a billion years ago, a seventy-two-foot-long Apatosaurus, a towering prehistoric giant sloth. But two new displays in the section on human evolution have been literally stopping visitors in their tracks.

Two new sculptures, created by French paleoartist Elisabeth Daynès, give a breathtakingly lifelike look at human relatives—Homo ergaster and Homo neanderthalensis.

“They look so real, almost like they’re alive,” breathes one visitor. She’s got a point—standing in a gallery full of millions-of-year-old fossils, the two new sculptures look like they could walk right out of their cases.

“Daynès’s sculptures are incredible, from both an artistic and a scientific standpoint,” says Field Museum Curator Emeritus of Biological Anthropology Robert Martin. Martin’s work focuses upon human evolution, tracing the path between modern humans and our early hominid relatives like Homo ergaster and Homo neanderthalensis. Comparing different hominid species can help us better understand why we humans are the way we are today.

Homo ergaster lived 1.6 million years ago—halfway between us and Lucy,” says Martin, referring to the Australopithecus afarensis specimen that got its nickname after the Beatles song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” Lucy, who lived 3.2 million years ago, is the oldest well-documented individual member of the lineage leading to humans. Homo ergaster was an early member of the genus Homo (the group including our own species, Homo sapiens).

The Homo ergaster specimen brought to life by Daynès was found near Kenya’s Lake Turkana, earning him the nickname “Turkana Boy.” We can tell he was just a boy because he has bones in his body that are still unfused—he was about fourteen years old. He’s over five feet tall, and he could have grown to be six feet—much taller than four-foot-tall Lucy. But more impressive than their difference in height is their difference in brain size.

“The key to comparing these species is brain size,” explains Martin. “Lucy had about a pint of brain. Turkana Boy had two pints, and modern humans have three—Turkana Boy is halfway in-between.”

Turkana Boy’s bigger brain makes him look a lot more like modern humans. The earliest hominids like Lucy didn’t really have foreheads, but Homo ergaster’s bigger brain called for a bigger noggin.

Meanwhile, the other new sculpture illustrates Homo neanderthalensis—a Neanderthal. While Turkana Boy lived over a million years before humans arrived on the scene, Neanderthals and humans shared the planet for tens of thousands of years. But despite living at the same time, there’s no evidence that they ever interacted—humans migrated from Africa into a region occupied by Neanderthals, who lived primarily in what’s now Europe and Central Asia.

Daynès’s Neanderthal sculpture looks eerily, beautifully human—he’s standing with his arms folded, he’s wearing simple clothes, and he has a thoughtful look on his face. The artist explains, “I have chosen to represent [my subjects with] attitudes that express reflection, pain, compassion and deepest human feelings. If Neanderthal was walking nowadays in the streets of a city, he would be unnoticed.” According to Martin, Daynès probably isn’t too far off with her intelligent-looking Neanderthal—“They lived in groups with complex social lives. We’ve found a Neanderthal that was toothless and had severe arthritis, that couldn’t have survived on its own, so it must have had social support. And scientists have recently found a 176,000-year-old wall built out of cave stalagmites in Europe, from well before humans got there—it must have been the work of Neanderthals.” 

In order to create sculptures that are both scientifically accurate and evocative pieces of art, Daynès uses reconstruction techniques not unlike the ones that forensic scientists rely upon—it’s art meets science meets CSI. Daynès explains, “Reconstruction of early humans begins with bones: preserved parts of the skull, teeth, pelvis and limbs. The skull is the most important key of any reconstruction.”

Exhibitions Project Manager Tom Skwerski explains, “The process for creating the reconstruction is time-consuming and exacting.  The face is first scientifically reconstructed in clay, with strips laid over the skull to represent the underlying muscular structure, and then skin is overlaid according to thickness measurements. Meticulous attention is given to the tiniest details from the shape of the eyelids to the texture of the skin in order to give each subject its identity.  A final molding of the clay reconstruction is made of silicone with hyper-realistic skin and coloration.  Natural hair is painstakingly implanted with surgical precision.”

But there’s more to the work than just being scientifically accurate—Daynès works to give her subjects personality. She explains, “My work is both an artistic and scientific challenge. Scientific because it is a synthesis of all knowledge on human origins at a given point of time. I then have to be rigorous. I work directly on casts of original skulls using scientific data, that new discoveries and publications may modify or support. Artistic because reaching an emotional impact and transmitting life requires an important creative dimension unlike a conventional reconstruction that would be realized in a forensic laboratory. The approach in a laboratory is different, purely scientific and will be limited to general characteristics of the individual (type, nose shape, etc.), the goal not being to give life.”  Based on the number of visitors literally  by the sculptures, it’s fair to say that Daynès hit the mark in giving her subjects life.

This addition to the permanent exhibition Evolving Planet was made possible by Joyce Chelberg.